Is international law flexible enough to oppose gray zone aggression?
It is not. International law does an excellent job of covering conventional war, while it has no agreements or regulations for what comes before. Every state has its own criminal law that can be used in some cases, but that is killing one fly with one blow. There is no legal system for gray zone aggression and I very much doubt there will be because the possibilities it offers are mainly used by one side – Russia, China and increasingly also by Belarus, Iran, North Korea – with the other side the target. Why should the former agree to rules?
Would you say our side, the democratic side, does not use such methods?
I would not go that far. Looking at support from the West for democratic groups in Russia, Belarus, Iran, they claim it is gray zone aggression and meddling in their affairs. We say that we are not meddling and are instead supporting pro-freedom movements in your countries.
We should not be as arrogant as to always paint ourselves as the good guys and perpetual victims. While we might think so, that is not how they see it.
There are clear differences in some areas. We do not use hostage diplomacy or weaponize migrants. However, it could be claimed that U.S. sanctions aimed against specific countries or companies constitute gray zone aggression as they are imposing their will on other states. It is also the reason why unilateral U.S. sanctions are not sensible because China can then do the same to American companies without there being anything left for the latter to say.
I’m not trying to justify the behavior of Russia, Belarus, China and Iran, we should simply look at our actions from their perspective and understand they have a different view of our best intentions. Especially in Russia.
What is the effect of technological development on gray zone aggression and the psychological resilience of democracy?
I have tried to draw attention to the convenience trap. Everyday activities have become increasingly convenient during my lifetime, while it also comes with greater vulnerability. For example, deepening digitation is giving attackers more and more possibilities.
We need to be honest as a society and admit that attacks on computer systems are phenomenally effective and cause a lot of damage. The other side knows this. We should not panic when it happens. We can choose to either dial back digital dependance or admit that it’s the price we need to pay for convenience.